Do you have mesmerizing electric blue fire, streaming down the mountain during the night, a turquoise, tranquil, but highly toxic lake with a sunrise that leaves you in awe with various shades of pink and purple as a backdrop, yourself being enrobed in sulphur clouds, breathing into a gas mask,making you look like a soldier on a mission and passing men carrying for hours up to 90 kilos of suplhur in baskets on their shoulders in mind when planning a hike in Indonesia?
And would you then expect to come back from this trip, thinking that you would have missed out on a life time opportunity experiencing such a unique aspect of Indonesia’s culture and nature?
You don’t? Well, I did not either, but that is exactly what I and a group of my friends encountered and felt during this experience, I will personally never forget.
Mountain buffs and hikers.
Travellers who love nature, natural phenomena but are not afraid of nature’s unpredictability. You can also see a real life sulphur mining operation that makes you humble and being grateful for your life.
Travellers who have a passion for adventure and exploring unique and unusual experiences. Also including the harshness, dangers and inconveniences.
If you have any existing breathing conditions (asthma, panic easily when breathing anything other than oxygen, etc.) and/or have extremely sensitive eyes, then I would strongly recommend you don’t try to get into the Caldera.
You do NOT need to have a climbing experience, or an extraordinary level of fitness, but if you already get out of breath going up a fly of staircase, then you will be a little frustrated, but just a little.
You like an easy leisure walk with stunning views only.
You do not like unexpected surprises that could affect your hiking experience (change of temperature, changes of smell, various types of hiking trails).
You like a guarantee that you will go down the crater on the day of your trip. There is no guarantee, nature is unpredictable and if due to massive sulphur clouds it is too dangerous on that day to go down, you have to respect it for your own safety.
If you feel very uncomfortable scrambling in the dark down a steep rough track, which is not clearly marked, or secured in the dark, or if you do not like to see deep slopes without fences.
If you want the security of a rescue service in the area. I have not seen any and I really wonder what would actually happen if somebody twisted an ankle and could not walk anymore. This trek down would be banned as a health and safety risk in any Western country in my opinion. So if you put safety as a priority for your leisure activities, think twice before you do this trek.
We started off from the base camp for the 4 km trek up the caldera rim at 2 am in the morning. The trek began with a rather easy straight and wide route with no rocks, which snakes up steep slopes for about an hour, so nothing to really worry about.
You will get out of breath (I am talking about people with a “normal” fitness level), but since this is not a time race, just take a short break after every 5-7 minutes and regain your breath and you will be fine. We all made it without any problems. The last 30 minutes walk of the roughly 1 ½ hours total walk was easy and mostly flat. I found it extremely helpful to have a pole (our guide made some for us from bamboo he found on the way), to keep balance, but climbing up with it on the first 1 hour really made it easier as well.
Oh, one practical advice, too often forgotten, there is no public toilet anywhere once you have left the base camp, so use the toilet there before you start the trek (unless you don’t mind the “nature bush toilet” along the way).
We reached shortly before 4 am the crater rim and then walked down into the caldera. It is a bit of a tough scramble, although there is a rough path and on parts some woody handrails, but it is not marked, so be careful where you put your feet, especially in the dark. If you don’t feel comfortable going all the way into the crater, you can also appreciate the flames from a higher distance.
It can also be complicated further with significant amount of sulphur smoke. There is only space for one person at a time on the path down the crater, so you follow the person in front of you. Do NOT let anybody pressure you to walk faster (did not happen to us, but I just mention it in case it happens), make sure you are safe and go at your own pace and just let the other person pass. Watch your own security, that is very important.
This might sound a little off putting, but if you are fit and can cope with the sulfur and a bit of a rough, but manageable trail down, then go for it, as it is amazing and almost unique in the world.
There is a sort of platform further down the crater, from where we watched the magical blue fire in the middle of the night. It is truly a unique experience.
Sunrise is beautiful up here, the colors of the lake are highlighted, but the blue flames disappear at 5 am, so you have to come during the night if you want to see them.
5-1: The descent down to the world’s largest acidic lake
Not that many people went all the way down to the acid lake (probably because the sulfur clouds are the heaviest there), but we absolutely wanted to experience it and also seeing the mining operation close up.
As the name says, the lake is acidic (filled with hydrochloric and sulfuric acid) and hot, so do not go inside or touch it (ok we did put a finger inside, because we wanted to see for ourselves if it “dissolves”).
It did not, but seriously, don’t do it and just watch it. After we stayed for about 30 minutes, we took the 2 hours trip back to the base camp. By that time it was of course much hotter already, so we took off our layers of clothes. A t-shirt or light jumper was ok.
By the way, do not imitate putting your hands into the water, it is acidic. But curiosity took over naughty Yani and she could not resist to dip her hands for a second into the lake with a surface temperature of 50-60°С. Remember not to touch your eyes when you have previously put your hands in the water.
5-2: The return to the base camp
At around 06.00 am we headed back up the crater rim (since it was daylight it was much easier and going up was also less slippery than going down) and from there the easy path down to the base camp.
Around the acid lake and on the crater rim you find miners selling figures made of sulfur (the small ones cost IDR 10.000 and the bigger ones IDR 20.000) to make an additional income. Frankly speaking, I have no idea what do with those objects (maybe a paper weight ?), but we all bought a few, as the hardship of those miners made us want to give a least a small token of appreciation.
This is the easy part (about 30 minutes of the 1 ½ hours total) up and down from the crater rim to and from the base camp. As you can see, this is really very manageable for even people not considered super fit.
The blue fire
The nearly surreal landscape
Watching a mining operation close up, even though seeing the hardship of the miners made us feel very uncomfortable, but also grateful for how easy our life is in comparison to that of those men.
If you can, try to avoid the holidays and long weekends, because a lot of people will be along the trail leading from the base camp to the crater rim during those periods.
Go during the dry season (May to September/October)
Trek during the night if you want to see the blue fire. It will be gone at 5 am in the morning.
There are generally 2 main routes to get to the base camp to start the hike: If you are in Bali, take “The Bali Route”, else if you are in Java, take “The Java Route”.
6-1: The Bali Route through Banyuwangi
If you are travelling from Bali, you can reach Ijen Crater through Banyuwangi, it’s closer to Ijen Crater (45 km) compared to Bondowoso (64 km).
6-1-1: Start of the journey from Bali to East Java
Our group consisted of 6 people, aging between 20+ to 60+ years (a healthy mix of one Indonesian, two Germans, one American, two Russians). Do I need to mention that we were an all girls group. One guy chickened out, because of the ashes from the nearby Ruang Volcano eruption a few days earlier in the area, which also resulted in several airports being closed for days, so much for girls adventure power!
6-1-2: The route from Kerobokan (South Bali) to the ferry terminal at Gilimanuk (West Bali)
Our group met up at 6 pm in Kerobokan (close to Seminyak) and we drove from there by pre-arranged minivan (it was part of our package) to Gilimanuk, from where we took the ferry to Ketapang in East Java.
The approximate normal driving time to Gilimanuk is about 3 hours, but unfortunately there were a lot of road works on that evening, so it took us nearly 5 hours to get to the ferry, but since we left so early, just in case the unexpected happened, there was no time pressure at all.
6-1-3: Ferry ride from Bali to Java
The ferry ride took about an 1.5 hour and ferries leave in about 30 minutes interval (our minivan came with us on the ferry. Do not expect a “Queen Mary” cruise ship experience, it is a basic, but safe ferry), we arrived in East Java and we drove another 2 hours to the base camp climb).
6-1-4: Drive from Ketapang ferry port to the base camp
From the ferry port Ketapang we drove through the Licin route, because it was closer to Ijen instead of driving through Bondowoso on the north side (travel time 2 hours versus 3-4 hours via Bondowoso). We had a good car which you need on this deteriorated road, ideal is a 4 wheel drive.
Please note something very important, you will be asked to take a jeep with a driver (I remember it was IDR 500.000 per car) to go to the base camp and that is non-negotiable. The reason behind this, some time ago before the roads leading to the base camp could only be reached by jeeps, therefore many locals invested a lot of money into purchasing jeeps for taking the tourists.
Over the years the road has been massively improved, making the jeeps not a necessity anymore. I believe you understand the discontent of the people having purchased those jeeps and now being out of their business. Anyway, long story short, you will have to take the jeep. We took our minivan instead of going by jeep, but still paid the jeep ride cost (was included in our tour package).
On the way to the base camp you drive along villages and warungs and they are open until late. Grab a few snacks and drinks here so you are not hungry before the climb.
The whole trip from Bali – Ijen Crater – Bali took us 24 hours (we left at 6 pm and returned at 6 pm the next day). We did not stay overnight and did not sleep during that time, but in case you want to be a bit more relaxed, I think staying for one night in Banyuwangi is a good idea.
6-2: The Java Route through Bondowoso
In case you are already in Java the suggested route to reach the Ijen base camp would be through Bondowoso (64 km to Ijen Crater – Paltuding base camp).
6-2-1: If you fly to Java, the closest airport is Surabaya (Juanda International Airport) and from there to Bondowoso it would take about 5~6 hours by car, or 8~10 hours by bus (total 180km, no train transport is possible to Bondowoso.).
6-2-2: Through Bondowoso, you can charter a car up to Pos Paltuding (Paltuding base camp, 64km from Bondowoso) which would cost you anywhere around Rp 400,000 to Rp 600,000 (including driver and petrol). The Ijen Crater’s lake is roughly another 90 minutes hike from Pos Paltuding.
* Hire a car is practical way to go in our opinion as the bus journey can be tedious and schedule can be uncertain. The road through here is rather steep and deteriorated to say the least and a 4 wheel drive is necessary.
So, how much time should you give yourself for this trip? We left at 6 pm on a Friday from Bali and returned at 6 pm the next day, so no sleep for us, but it was ok, we had naps on the way to Gilimanuk in the car. We were anyway too excited to sleep. On the way back to Bali though, nearly everybody just fell into a coma in the car after having had a really nice breakfast.
You can of course go to Java earlier, if you want to explore this part of Indonesia and to avoid the long car ride from Bali to Java in the evening, but our main purpose for this trip was, to do the Ijen Crater trek and nothing else and since all of us were in Bali, that was the itinerary which worked for us, but it is by all means not the only one.
Contact Pierrick Bigot, if you need this information, he can tell you all about alternative routes and also 3 days trips which also take you to Bromo.
Did we prepare ourselves for this trip? Not really, we just decided spontaneously that we wanted to do it.
About one week before the trip we met with our guide, Frenchman and long term Bali resident Pierrick Bigot in Bali to talk about what we would have to expect during this hike and to ensure that we were all aware of what it involved. At that stage we also paid our 50% deposit. I think this pre-trip meeting was a great idea, as everybody had the opportunity to evaluate for him/herself if that trip was for them or not and we could ask the questions important to us.
Torches (either hand torches or headlamps. We opted for the headlamps to keep our hands free), although I took both, just in case the battery would run out in the night
Gloves (it is cold up there, but they even serve you well when you go down the crater and have to hold on to sharp rocks)
Gas masks, which you need as protection against dense clouds of toxic gases like sulphur dioxide. You cannot stay for a long time in those gases without a mask. It all depends on the wind if you will encounter a lot of those toxic gases on the day of your climb.
Some normal protection masks, just in case you don’t like to breath in the sulphur smell and it disturbs you.
Some people wore them already on the way leading to the crater rim, while others felt absolutely no need to use them at such an early stage. I was one of them not needing them early on, but it really varies from person to person. Go with what makes you comfortable. No advice fits all.
Warm clothes. Now, do not expect the service of a “mobile second-hand winter clothes store” from your guide, but we were very lucky that Pierrick was so kind to come with a “magic” bag full of warm jackets, jumpers, etc. Let’s face it, who comes to Bali or lives there and has polar clothes in their suitcase. So, most of us were very happy to dig into the bag and I ended up with 4 layers of clothes, because it does really get cold in the night.
We were doing this trek during the Ramadan period, so it was relatively quiet, but we were told that during holidays and weekends it can get really busy on that trail.
Before this question, more importantly, does one actually need a guide?
My personal answer to this one is, no and yes. Of course you can arrange all this by yourself and read reviews, literature, etc. to prepare yourself and if you have all the time in the world, by all means go for it and be completely independent.
But after having done this trip, I seriously would not have liked to go through the preparation myself, mainly because it takes too much time and one is also not fully aware of the local culture and Ijen Crater trek etiquette and the potential, but real dangers, so taking a guide saves you time, hassle and ensures your safety and does not need to be a mass tourist experience at all. I think it was money well spend.
10-1: Social Media and word of mouth work best
We found our guide Pierrick on his Facebook page, because he has done this trek countless times, speaks Indonesians, knows the locals around Ijen Crater and how to deal with them.
I would also say he was very professional and ensured that we were safe and he briefed us well before the trek (those who had questions could also ask him on facebook) and also again on the day itself. He knew the dangers, how to behave in dangerous situations and how to “read” those group members who might need help.
Since he knew we had people of different fitness levels in our group, he recommended to take a second guide and he had good connection and arranged one for us, who was not only extremely friendly and knowledgeable about the trek (he was previously a miner in the area), but also made the people being in the back of the group feel very safe. At IDR 150.000 additional cost (between all 6 of us) this is hardly an expensive price to pay for safety and comfort.
I cannot tell you the costs through all sorts of agencies, as everybody has a different price, but calculate USD 90-120 per person (depending on the number of people) to include:
The transfer by comfortable minivan (depending on the number of people) including all petrol
The ferry ride
Torches (hand torch or headlamp)
Gas masks and ordinary masks
Winter clothes (now, this is not a regular inclusion – but maybe if you kindly ask Pierrick he does it for you too -, but our guide dragged along a “mobile second hand winter clothes bag” as a gesture of goodwill for us and seriously those clothes were a life saver, unless you come to Bali with all your winter clothes in place).
A very nice local, non touristy Javanese breakfast at a private family’s home (our guide has known the family for many years). It was soooo delicious after this long night. Cannot believe that everybody forgot to take a picture, but I guess we were all too hungry to focus on picture taking.